Well now it is time to add the name Manuel Gomez Pereira to the list of unique erotic visionaries. In his 1999 film Entre Las Piernas (which translates as "between your legs") we witness the complete transformation of the Basic Instinct sex crime flick into an homage to classic Hollywood suspense mixed with ironic ideals of male/female interaction. It is a stellar work of deliciously skewered aesthetics, a movie that never takes itself too seriously as it parades its multiple influences like a proud motion picture peacock. Pereira's visual flare and uncanny ability to keep the audience off guard guarantees that, while feeling totally familiar, this is one movie that will have you guessing and grinning all the way to its twist ending.
Turns out that the semi-celebrity is the unwilling participant in a series of seedy audiocassettes, recordings of his phone sex sessions with a mysterious woman. They are all the rage in the city. Javier soon discovers the source of this scandal and it is as shocking as it is familiar. The police, including Miranda's husband, locate some fingerprints and DNA in the car and it links Javier to the scene. As they investigate further, Miranda and Javier grow closer. Who the corpse is/was, the connection to the couple and the ultimate identity of the killer is a tangled web of lies, assumptions and revenge. Miranda has faith that her new lover, the savior of her sad life, is innocent. But is he? Is Javier guilty, or is he culpable for all the problems caused by what is between his legs?
From its Saul Bass influenced credits to its obviously inspired by Bernard Hermann score, Between Your Legs is the sloppy wet dream Hitchcock never got to make for the silver screen. An obvious homage to the mighty master of suspense and, to some extent, his bastard child (the once-brilliant) Brian DePalma, this is a movie that parades its influences like cinematic footnotes to the rich tapestry of tension it is trying to create. It begins with a premise so fresh and infinite that it's a wonder why other auteurs have not plundered it for their own artistic triumphs. As we learn about the passions and problems of people stricken with compulsive sexual addiction, we journey into a private world where nothing is as it seems, everyone has horrible secrets and anything can happen to anyone at any time. Planes crash, traffic stands still for a ceremonial remembrance and police officers shoot their one-legged bed-ridden adulterous wives. Yet this is not even the main crux of the film. At the center of this story of intercourse and interpersonal intrigue are two flawed, fragile characters, each exhibiting their sick sad minds for the other to feed off of. Indeed, Javier and Miranda are made for each other. They share a private sense of promiscuity and pity that only the other can fully comprehend, and perhaps show any compassion for.
Theirs' is a world of secrets and lies, and director Pereira illustrates this brilliantly in his use of fantasies, flashbacks and montage. When Javier tells of meeting the mysterious Azucena at the airport (thus beginning his fatal phone sex fixation) we are introduced to the elusive female through a convoluted tale of mismatched triplets that shines with a stark absurdity. Yet within the context of Periera's narrative, the sequence is not out of place and unfolds magnificently. As do Javier's memories of helping a local prostitute with a tricky "date". As the sequence builds to the ambiguous climax, we immediately re-enter the present day to discover our hero hesitant to respond to a questionnaire inquiry as to whether he has ever been arrested for a sex crime. His answer and the shot of Javier's guilty face say more than pages of exposition or some sorry swapping of expositional dialogue. Indeed, Periera loves visuals and whenever he can, he compliments the words being spoken with illustrative pastiches, attempts to quickly and optically give the audience clues about the importance and reality of what is being said. When we learn that Miranda uses her dog as a means of finding available partners at the local park, the despair she exudes when she thinks he is dead is startling. Then Periera adds a final fade out in which we see the dog disappear from the owner's arms and a single, sad shot of Miranda as she painfully disintegrates. It is absolutely brilliant.
Yes, there are a great deal of camera tricks, obvious directorial diversions and character quirks here. But they are good quirks, the kind of acceptable strange cinematic description that avoids irony and camp while creating actual three-dimensional eccentrics. Interestingly, we view Javier and Miranda as odd only in their suicidal sexual practices. Yet all other individuals surrounding them are twisted and warped, from Miranda's overly jealous husband who harbors a wanted murderer from his comrades to Javier's squealing business partner who has been using his producer title to procure more than just hot "properties" for the company. Even ancillary individuals, like the arguing couple who discover the dead body or the police partners who behave like bad 70s TV cops (too much fashion and fat, not enough law enforcement). Putting them into the straight ahead sexually obsessed world of Miranda and Javier humanizes what are essentially two complete social deviants, people who would fornicate in public if it would satisfy their insane desires. The fact that we care for both of them deeply, want their relationship to work and recognize a small segment of civility in their otherwise tortured souls indicates that, through the use of surrounding strange scapegoats, our should-be-despicable sin-crossed lovers are really just romantics who are lost in the mixed-up modern machination of physicality.
In the leads, Javier Bardem & Victoria Abril are wonderfully complex, filled with the same guilt and lust, hopelessness and pain that motivates their desires to sell themselves short in the sack (if they even get that far). Bardem practically vibrates with a tenuous, untapped testosterone-fueled fire of animal ardor (he is jumping-out-of-his-skin God-like here!), but it is Abril that is the real revelation. We can easily envision Bardem bedding the first thing he sees to release his inner needs. But Abril is fragile, not typically attractive. Her mousy persona, complete with misplaced feelings for the family pet and an inability to deal with her distant family is couched in a hurting, haunted stare that suggests bottomless sorrow. But there is also a wink of the devil in her smile, a strange bewildered smirk that indicates a demented demon of unclean desires constantly crying inside her, waiting with impatience and dire persistence to be violated. Both actors project the hidden face of addiction well, and since we are just dealing with what one character calls "the invisible habit", they must suggest withdrawal and craving, satisfaction and desperation without the use of pasty make-up, physical gymnastics or manic madness. There's is a slow burn of agonizing desire and the subtle yet substantial way they portray it makes the movie that much more meaningful. And enjoyable.
The rest of the cast is equal to the task of matching Bardem and Abril, but if there is one person who shines above them all, it is the director Pereira himself. Rarely has a reliance on the pre-modern means of storytelling meshed so well with a subject so post-millennial. How to handle sexual obsession and addiction in a provocative, non-exploitative manner is always a challenge. American directors tend to slop on the nudity and naked monkey bunking and as an audience, we are supposed to sit back and indulge our depraved desires while simultaneously hoping for some manner of amoral Betty Ford rehabilitation. Only problem is, whenever the erotica arrives onscreen, the suspense implodes, as it now has to be channeled into and is occasionally cancelled out by the groping, grabbing free show-for-all between the canoodling couple. Pereira understands this potential threat and fashions his film after the peek but no boo suggestions of early, classic films. There is some nudity here (mostly in ancillary subplots) and a strong sensual undercurrent. But Pereira gets that the most erotic aspect of sex is not gynecological investigation of the act, but the slow burning desire of seduction and foreplay. Bardem and Abril are smoldering in this movie and there is not one scene of them nude in bed working out their interpersonal dynamics. Even if you forget the stunning visual canvas Pereira creates, his attention to human details and infatuation is far more impressive. And it is what makes Between Your Legs such a stunning, all around excellent erotic thriller.